Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke *****

Wow. I can give this book a short review for someone considering reading it, and I want to go more in depth, because this man has a lot going on.

So here’s the short version of this Edgar winning novel: the story line holds together w/o pause, slow spot, or error, but it’s more than that. The development of character is the most engaging of any new-to-me writer I’ve read in a very long time. I was so sick of reading novels about alcoholics, and really, really tired of the hackneyed ruse of ordinary-person-gets-involved-because-he’s-framed and ALSO of ordinary-person-gets-involved-to-save-a-loved-one. Yet Burke made both of these tired old saws brand, spanking new, breathed such amazing new urgency into character, plot, and setting that I could only drop my jaw and say, “WOW.”

I consider this a must-read. Now you can be done, unless you’ve already read it; spoilers below.
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When I take on a new author–and this guy had been writing for over 20 years before I found him, so I was looking at this novel not only as a new book and writer, but also as someone whose entire series I was considering reading–I need to know a little bit about his outlook on the world before I can really engage. If he spins too far to the right, with Black folks being just born to a life of crime and gay people being sick, sick sinners (for example), I just can’t go there and do that. So I reserve a little of my buy-in until I trust the writer.

You can read on many levels. If you are a pleasure reader and don’t do analysis, and if you are still with me, you can go now. I’m about to delve into issues of race as they come into play in this novel, and I will take my time. Again, there will be spoilers.

That said, I went in wary, and came out very impressed, though still a little bit puzzled. What is WITH the habitual use of the word “Negro”? It may be on the U.S. census, but I don’t know a single African-American who wants to be called by it. When six syllables are too long to sustain, simply “Black” is preferred. My basis for this belief is my many years of teaching in what was considered by some to be a “dangerous” school (oh please) and my own family members. I am pretty pale, but the miracle of blended families has brought us all together. And I looked at the word, and my back went up. WHAT? What’s that about? And because the writer drives home his message subtly and uses that weird, weird term (socially weird, anyway,) I had red flags all over his work until I was three-quarters of the way done.

He compounds the error by referring to “Texans and Negroes”, inferring that no Black person can be Texan…this is uncharacteristically clumsy, or else the guy really has a few issues that he probably doesn’t even realize he has; his writing later sympathizes with a former Panther behind bars who hears that the system works, and says, “That’s right, Motherfucker. And it work for somebody else.”

And still later, he talks about how people who complain about the cost of welfare and paying for free housing for the poorest of the poor have absolutely no idea what it costs the people who grow up in projects to live the way they must, and how very little they actually have.

So the guy is not a racist in the true sense of the word; like a lot of folks who think they have passed all the hurdles, he has one or two left, at least at this stage in his writing.

What he really wants to talk about, though, besides of course building an outstanding suspense thriller, is how the Indians have been treated. And he uses this term, but also directly refers to AIM (the American Indian Movement). This didn’t bother me right up front, the way the word “Negro” did, but I was watching to see where he took it.

Part of the story takes place in Montana. The writer is very familiar with the area; he has two homes, according to his profile, one in New Iberia, Louisiana, and one in Montana. And all through the build-up, as he decides that the death of a man who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe may be the key to his own dilemma, he inquires of various locals as to whether they knew this man, or what happened to him. And again and again, they explain to him, not about the man as an individual or whose well being causes them concern. They tell him about Indians. They tell him about the reservation.

I have sticky notes on all the pages where this occurs, but this review will be long enough without all of them, so here’s the short version: they say something that sounds token, like how sorry they feel about what was done to the Indians…and then, they feel free to say what they really think, which is that Indians drink, they fight, they blow all their money in bars, they don’t show up for work. They’re violent; alcoholic; unreliable. “They’re a deeply fucked up people.”

So, as a new reader, I am still wondering whether the author believes this is true. The way he pops that bubble is artistry, all by itself.

He does this with two people who are also Blackfeet. One is the sister of the victim, with whom he has an affair; the other is the mother of the victim.

The victim’s mother is a wizened old woman out in the dusty fields, cropping away at the dirt and weeds with her hoe, working in what is trying to be a garden. He speaks to her as if she is simple, maybe doesn’t speak very good English. It’s both an act of racism and ageism, but as the narrator, he outs himself. He realizes when she looks him straight in the eye and asks him who he is and what he is after, that he has underestimated her. Then he talks to her like someone who knows something, and she invites him in for a chat.

The victim’s sister is better still. She notes that the Blackfeet Reservation is in the lee of the mountain, and she has to tell HIM what that means (it’s the side away from the wind, on the eastern slope). The US government has its missile silos under the reservation. The government had freely admitted that if the missiles were ever used, every single person on the reservation of the Blackfeet would die. She has quite a bit to say, and none of it is stupid, violent raving or alcohol-induced stupor.

He also does not shrink from talking about the misery experienced by those who live in the kind of poverty to which reservation Indians have been consigned, or issues of addiction. He compares them to Salvadoran refugees whose village has been the site of terrible warfare. Any people who loses a war, he says, is consigned to unspeakable degradation. And he gives us details to support it.

This is all sideline stuff in terms of the story itself, but it was essential to me as a reader. I can’t bury myself in a writer’s story until I feel that his good guys and my good guys are mostly the same people. His tale is one outstanding ride, and the writer, warts and all, meets my standard of what a decent human being looks like.

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